If Bay du Nord will be built, it will have to overcome at least one court challenge. 

On Wednesday, Sierra Club Canada and Quebec environmental non-profit Equiterre filed for a judicial review of the Trudeau government’s approval of the controversial proposed offshore oil project.

It’s the latest in a growing number of legal challenges to fossil fuel projects worldwide at a critical moment in time, as scientists and people around the world are fighting governments and industries to limit global warming to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius amid intensifying climate breakdown and a mass extinction of species. 

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that global carbon emissions must be halved by 2030 to avoid the most devastating impacts of a human-caused crisis already linked to millions of deaths each year. The World Health Organization estimates global warming will contribute to an additional 250,000 deaths annually between 2030 and 2050.

Represented by law firm Ecojustice, Sierra Club and Equiterre argue federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault did not have the authority to release Bay du Nord from environmental assessment—in part because his decision was based on incomplete information, and because the government did not take into account the majority of the greenhouse gas emissions anticipated from the project.

The groups say that the oil extraction process accounts for only 10 percent of the total emissions associated with an oil project, and that the remaining 90 percent come from the oil being burned. They say Bay du Nord could generate 400 million tonnes of carbon, the emissions equivalent of putting 7-10 million new cars on the road.

“Just days before Bay du Nord was approved, the UN Secretary General said investing in new oil projects was ‘moral and economic madness’—so we really had no choice but to challenge this approval,” said Gretchen Fitzgerald, Sierra Club’s national program director. “Canada needs to stop breaking its climate promises and protect communities from the impacts of runaway climate change such as coastal flooding, unprecedented storms, loss of ice cover needed for traditional hunting and fishing, and disrupted supply chains.” 

“We also need to get off the downward spiral of boom and bust that will only become more and more precarious as oil markets decline.”

If built, Bay du Nord would be Canada’s first deepwater oil well. Equinor, the Norwegian oil company with a majority stake in the project, estimates it would take up to 36 days to cap a blowout of the well.

“An uncontrolled blowout in the middle of the North Atlantic with oil spilling uncontrollably for weeks to months would be a catastrophe for fisheries and ocean life—not to mention Canada’s international reputation,” Fitzgerald said in a statement Wednesday.

The estimated 18-36 day response time to capping a blowout “also assumes perfect weather conditions,” Heather Elliott, a St. John’s-based campaigner for Sierra Club, said Wednesday. “By comparison, [British Petroleum’s] Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico took 87 days to cap, and weather conditions are usually far more favourable there.”

Governments advocating for oil are “lying”: UN Secretary General

Premier Andrew Furey and Industry, Energy, and Technology Minister Andrew Parsons have repeated industry talking points about the alleged comparatively lower emissions that would be generated by the project. 

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Gueterres recently said governments who are pursuing new fossil fuel projects while at the same time stating commitments to climate action “are lying.”

“And the results will be catastrophic,” Gueterres said in a recorded message to mark the launch of a new IPCC report last month. “This is a climate emergency.”

“Climate scientists warn that we are already perilously close to tipping points that could lead to cascading and irreversible climate impacts. But high‑emitting governments and corporations are not just turning a blind eye, they are adding fuel to the flames.”

In its Sixth Assessment report, the IPCC warned that extreme events associated with climate change will “significantly increase ill health and premature deaths from the near- to long-term,” and that “climate-sensitive food-borne, water-borne, and vector-borne disease risks are projected to increase under all levels of warming without additional adaptation.”

“We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming,” IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee said last month

According to the IPCC’s latest report, limiting warming to around 1.5° C would require global greenhouse gas emissions to peak by 2025, and then to be reduced by 43 percent by 2030. Even then, it said, “it is almost inevitable that we will temporarily exceed this temperature threshold but could return to below it by the end of the century.”

“It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C,” said Jim Skea, co-chair of the IPCC working group that authored the report. “Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”

James Gunvaldsen Klaassen, a lawyer with Ecojustice involved in the lawsuit, says the federal government “has made many promises to do its part to tackle climate change, but as this decision demonstrates, those promises are more talk than action at this stage.”

“We cannot ignore downstream emissions when assessing projects like Bay du Nord,” he continues. “The projects we generate in Canada have a global impact and we must stop exporting our emissions and climate crisis overseas for others to deal with while continuing to profit at home.”

Protestors gather in downtown St. John’s on Wednesday, May 11.

Lawsuits and protests coincide with Equinor AGM

The state-owned Equinor, formerly Statoil, is holding its annual general meeting (AGM) Wednesday in Stavanger, Norway, where company leaders and shareholders will discuss key issues like the future of oil and associated financial risks.

In its 2021 annual filings, released in March, the company cites a number of potential risks to its bottom line that relate to the state of the oil industry and rapidly changing global policies and perceptions around the transition to cleaner forms of energy.

Among them are “regulatory changes and policy measures targeted at reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” which the company says “could impact Equinor’s financial outlook, including the value of its assets.” It could also be affected “indirectly through changes in consumer behaviour or technology developments.”

The company also warns of potential “reputational impact” related to “increased concern over climate change [that] could lead to increased expectations on fossil fuel producers, as well as a more negative perception of the oil and gas industry.”

“This could lead to increased litigation-related costs and poor reputation could affect our license to operate as well as our ability to attract and retain talent and key competences”—all of which, it adds, “could lead to an increased cost of capital.”

The AGM was in progress at the time of publication, but several shareholder proposals published ahead of the conference indicated some desire from within to shift the company more rapidly from fossil fuels to renewable energy production.

Coordinated protests today in Norway and St. John’s targeted Equinor in an attempt to influence decision-makers inside and outside the company. 

“The Canadian government is attempting to greenwash Bay du Nord by touting its potential use of Carbon Capture and Storage,” Colleen Thorpe, Equiterre’s executive director, said in a statement Wednesday. “But no amount of greenwashing can hide the fact that the massive amount of oil generated by the project will not be offset and will damage our climate.” 

The groups pointed out Wednesday that Equinor is facing backlash in countries other than Canada, too. In Argentina, another lawsuit has been filed against that country’s government over its approval of Equinor’s seismic exploration in the North Argentine Sea.

“In Norway, Argentina, and Canada alike, Equinor is blatantly ignoring science and people,” Frode Pleym, a Greenpeace leader in Norway, said in a statement. “In the midst of a climate emergency, Equinor wants to establish new petroleum production in invaluable ecosystems.”

“A shift in Equinor is way overdue. I hope this year’s AGM will steer the company away from some of the world’s worst projects.”

Given the lawsuit’s potential implications for the province, The Independent asked Furey and Environment and Climate Change Minister Bernard Davis for comment. A spokesperson responded by email saying the government “is not a party as this is a matter between the Federal Government and other parties. We cannot comment on a matter before the courts.”

The Independent also sought comment from Guilbeault and Equinor, but did not receive responses by the time of publication.

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Justin Brake (he/him) is an independent journalist from Newfoundland who currently lives on unceded Algonquin territory in Ottawa.